Same-sex marriages? Japan’s been there, done that, kind of
Japan may come off as a repressive, depressing society where people live sorry, unhappy lives well into their 90s. OK, we might seem that way to the outsider, but in actual fact Japan has consistently been liberal and permissive in certain areas.
Take homosexuality. Shibuya-ku (渋谷区, Shibuya Ward) and Setagaya-ku (世田谷区, Setagaya Ward) have made it possible for same-sex partners to enjoy the same kazoku (家族, family) benefits as conventional married couples within their wards, but according to my gay friend Kohei: “We’ve always enjoyed plenty of freedom and sympathy. It’s single mothers, working women and abused children that need protection.”
Kohei has a point. He and his boyfriend have lived in the equivalent of matrimonial bliss for the past decade, with the full support of their large circle of friends. They have more or less cut off ties with their aging parents, who expressed ikari (怒り, anger) and fukai shitsubō (深い失望, deep disappointment) at their union, but Kohei says this has exonerated them both from the hassles of kaigo (介護, helping and caring) for parents later on.
“Gei da to wazurawashii koto kara kaihō sareru” (ゲイだと煩わしいことから 解放される, “If you’re gay, you become liberated from burdensome stuff”), says Kohei. “Nihon de ikiteiku tame ni wa gei ni naru no ga ichiban” (日本で生きていく ためにはゲイになるのが一番, “To keep on living in Japan, it’s best to be gay”).
Kohei says that pretty soon, Japanese society will be divvied up into aging straight people and aging gay people, and that his camp will be happier, wealthier, less stressed and more likely to make positive contributions to society.
“Nihon no shakai wa zutto dōseiaisha o hogo shitekita” (日本の社会はずっと同性愛者を保護してきた, “Japanese society has always protected gay people”), says Kohei. “Ima-sara kekkon o mitomerumade mo nai” (今さら結婚を認めるまでもない, “It’s a bit late in the day to acknowledge marriage”).
History proves him right. Homosexuality is part and parcel of bushidō (武士道, the way of the samurai), and ever since the samurai class established their own bakufu (幕府, shogunate) in 1192, those in authority have separated the women from the men, deeming that female members of a household will weaken and corrupt a man’s resolve. Certainly, offspring were necessary for the bushi (武士, samurai) and his clan to carry on, but otherwise, onnakodomo (女子供, women and children) were often a useless commodity when procreation wasn’t on the agenda.
Japan’s most respected warlord, Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), was apparently a handsome bisexual man who preferred the company of men. In his series “Kunitori Monogatari” (国取り物語, “The Story of Taking the Country”), historian and novelist Shiba Ryotaro recounts how Nobunaga named his female children after household items like yakan (やかん, kettle). He called his favorite daughter Gotoku (五徳, kettle stand) because he deemed her the most useful.
Nobunaga was a great one for packing his children off to neighboring lords as hostages, according to Shiba, who based his novels on historical accounts. When relations between him and the lords went sour, the children were murdered and their heads impaled on the end of sticks — not that Nobunaga cared much, since it gave him the excuse to retaliate.
This warlord kept over a dozen concubines and habitually raped female servants, but personally, he preferred comely young boys. These he trained from childhood to wait on him hand and foot, and allowed them to share his sleeping chambers.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose castle remains Tokyo’s most famed tourist attraction, unified Japan in 1603 when he was in his 60s. Ieyasu is widely acknowledged to have built the foundations of the sarariiman shakai (サラリーマン社会, salaryman society) that defines modern Japanese life. Under Ieyasu, the bushi were separated from wives and children in the guise of shigoto (仕事, work, i.e., serving one’s master) and only saw them about once a month.
The higher a bushi‘s rank, the less time he spent at home, and the regional daimyo (大名, clan lords) were forced to leave their families in the capital city of Edo (江戸 , modern-day Tokyo) as a kind of collateral while they stayed out in their territorial castles. They were allowed to come to Edo every two years or so, for the sankin kōtai (参勤交代), which was an elaborate and expensive parade that took weeks. It’s no wonder, then, that the bushi — whatever his rank — kept boy lovers for emotional solace and sexual happiness. Any relations with women, whether they were formal wives or sokushitsu (側室, concubines), precluded the gimu (義務, obligation) of kozukuri (子作り, childbearing) and paying homage to the Tokugawa Bakufu.
With such a history prodding at their backs, it’s no wonder Japanese men and women find it difficult to live together in love and harmony. “Kekkon ga shiawase nano wa saisho no ichinen dake” (結婚が幸せなのは最初の一年だけ, “Marriage is happy just for the first year”), says my friend Kiyomi, who is a batsuichi (バツ イチ, once-divorced) and now loves attending gōkon (合コン, matchmaking parties) without actively seeking a partner. Kiyomi says the hassles of a katei (家庭, home life) in Japan far outweigh the benefits of having a husband and kids, and she much prefers to just play the field.
Kiyomi is also considering taking a female partner once she hits 50. Since “Otoko wa ate ni naranai” (男はあてに ならない, “Men are so unreliable”), she feels that same-sex cohabitation might be the way to go. Japanese society may have more options that you think.
Japanese history is well known for celebrating homosexuality. Well, what we in the West call homosexuality. During the feudal era, homosexuality wasn’t an identity as it is today. The celebration of male love changed with many other aspects of their society during the Meiji Reformation. Like the protections single mothers and women enjoyed, homosexuality declined as Japan pushed to break out of the Tokugawa isolation and westernize.
Homosexuality in Feudal Japan
Photo by Wilhelm Burger 1869 near Yokohama Japan
During the Tokugawa Era, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, homosexuality was a part of being a samurai. Buddhist monasteries embraced it, and male brothels associated with Kabuki theaters flourished. Male homosexuality was thought to be useful for teaching young men virtue, honesty, and an appreciation for beauty. During this time, particularly in the samurai class, relationships with women were devalued. They were only necessary for the continued existence of the household (Furnham & Saito, 2009). Men who were attracted to women were thought to also be attracted to young boys and female impersonators (McLellend, 2000b). Homosexuality among men was a normal characteristic of being samurai. Men who loved other men were still expected to have wives and families. Homosexuality wasn’t the binary it is now. It was only a small aspect of a person’s character and responsibilities.
What about lesbians? I couldn’t find information about lesbianism during the Tokugawa period. Japan was, and still is, a male-oriented society. Women had roles they were expected to play. I am certain many samurai and peasant wives were also lesbians. Like same-sex male relationships, women’s relationships were not to interfere with their duties to the family. The heart of Japanese womanhood is to be a good wife and mother. Marriage was the defining characteristic of adulthood for men and women. Even in modern Japan, singles are not considered full adults (Chalmers, 2002).
Anyway, during the Meiji Restoration homosexuality’s prominence declined. Homosexuality remains acceptable in modern Japan as long as it isn’t flaunted. It is simply not spoken about (Furnham & Saito, 2009; Nakagawa, 2010). Despite this acceptance, exclusive homosexuality is seen as something to fear and despise. Unlike the United States, this fear doesn’t come from religion.
After all, Buddhist monks practiced same-sex relationships. Exclusive homosexuality is despised because it breaks gender expectations and social roles demanded by a culture that centers on family.
Discrimination in Modern Japan
Although the samurai class embraced same-sex relationships, it didn’t interfere with a man’s responsibilities to head a family and have children. In modern Japan, marriage is still seen as establishing a household rather than a romantic relationship. Because of this, many Japanese gay men willingly marry women and do not see it as a contradiction to their sexual preference. In fact, Japanese media lauds gay men as perfect marriage partners for women because gay men are considered to be more feminine and sympathetic to women’s subordinate social position (McLellend, 2000a). Many Japanese homosexuals hide their orientation in order to avoid disappointing or troubling their friends and family (Furnham & Saito, 2009). Remember, Japanese society and identity revolves around the family. The family comes first, above the desires of the individual. Well, this is the ideal anyway.
Openly gay people risk social discrimination despite Japan lacking laws against the orientation. Families have been known to disown gays and lesbians because of the dishonor they bring to the family and their inability to continue the lineage (Furnham & Saito, 2009).
Lesbians, in particular, face discrimination. Women who are not satisfied with marriage and childbearing are often seen as lacking and less than a real woman. Lesbians and unmarried gay men are not seen as adults. Lesbians experience intense pressure to appear heterosexual and interested in men (Chalmers, 2002). They also lack the historical precedents that gay men enjoy. To ice the cake, parents are thought to be the reason why a girl is a lesbian. Her sexual orientation is seen as a parental failure that can and should be corrected (Nakagawa, 2010).
Like in the United States, Japan has slang words used to refer to gay men and lesbians. Okama refers to the butt and used to refer to gay men. Obviously, this term is suggestive of anal sex which is considered the definitive sexual act engaged by gay men. Okama is also used to refer to transgender men. Homosexual men are stereotyped in a similar way as in the US. They are seen as feminine and promiscuous. Lesbians are called onabe and seen as the opposite of okama. Onabe are stereotyped as being masculine in dress and behavior. They understand themselves as a man, only without a penis (McLelland, 2000b; Furnham & Saito, 2009).
Same-sex marriage steps closer toward acceptance. Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward became the first locale to recognize same-sex partnerships as the equivalent of marriage, guaranteeing the identical rights married couples enjoy. However, the ordinance isn’t legally binding (Associated Press, 2015).
Japan’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriage in Article 24 (Newswire, 2015):
Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.
Boy’s Love and Yuri
Boy’s Love stories also called BL or YAOI are some manga fan’s first exposure to Japanese ideas of homosexuality.
Only the ideas found in BL are wrong.
Boy’s Love is not considered gay literature. The genre, better known by its acronym YAOI ( ochinashi, iminashi – translates to “no point, no meaning”), are stories that emphasize sex scenes between bishonen, beautiful boys, rather than focusing on romantic plot development. Written by female authors for female readers, the stories do not reflect the struggles and view points of Japanese homosexuals. Rather, the stories are fantasies of what homosexual love means. The characters are androgynous and behave in a feminine manner (McLelland, 2000a).
Likewise, yuri does not represent lesbian identity. Yuri focuses on sexual encounters between beautiful girls. Written by men for men, they explore male fantasies of lesbianism rather than actual lesbian relationships. Of course, in both genres there are certain to be a few stories that touch on homosexual people’s concerns and challenges.
Japanese Homosexual Identity
Like many touchy subjects Japanese culture slips around, homosexuality lacks the hard boundaries it has in Western culture. There isn’t a strong sense of identity attached to sexual orientation. Gay men willingly marry and have children without seeing the act as a contradiction of their identity. It is simply their duty as a Japanese man, regardless of whether or not he is attracted to women. Likewise, lesbians are expected to marry and have children. Many do just that. Their attraction toward the same sex isn’t the defining part of their personality. Of course, this is all just generalization based on surveys and other research. Such private, personal matters always have exceptions. It can be difficult for those of us in the West to understand how sexual orientation can play a small role in a person’s sense of identity. However, we live in a culture that values the individual. Whereas in Japan and other Asian cultures identity is focused on the family and family history. The individual is just another part of a large tree; a part that is pressured to continue the lineage and not dishonor it.
The Problems of World View
It is difficult for those of us who are heterosexual to understand the social pressures transgender and homosexual people face. This becomes even more difficult when culture differences add further complications. Despite Westernization, Japan still remains a culture different from that of the United States and other Western societies. Applying our understanding to their viewpoints and unique cultural identity is a disservice, but at the same time we can only understand based on what we know. Basically, what I am trying to say is this: we must have care when thinking about Japanese homosexuality and not view it from our own cultural lens. There are similarities and differences between the challenges homosexual people face in Japan and other countries. It becomes even harder to understand and explain these challenges when you have a world view that isn’t discriminated against, such as mine as a white, heterosexual American male.
In any case, it is important to understand that yaoi and yuri do not represent Japanese homosexual relationships. On the same note, hentai doesn’t represent Japanese heterosexual relationships. You can go ahead and smack your forehead and shout duh! But the messages we consume help form that worldview I talked about. We must remember not to allow media to shape our views without our knowledge.
Associated Press. (2015). Tokyo Ward 1st in Japan to Recognize Same Sex Marriage. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/31/world/asia/ap-as-japan-same-sex-marriage.html?_r=0
Chalmers, S (2002). Emerging Lesbian Voices from Japan. Psychology Press.
Furnham, A., & Saito, K. (2009). A Cross-Cultural Study of Attitudes Toward and Beliefs About, Male Homosexuality. Journal Of Homosexuality, 56(3), 299-318. doi:10.1080/00918360902728525
McLelland, M. (2000a). Is there a Japanese ‘gay identity’?. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 2(4), 459-472. doi:10.1080/13691050050174459
McLelland, M. (2000b) Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context. 3. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue3/mclelland2.html
Nakagawa, Ularam (2010). Japan’s Lesbians Still Scared to Come Out. CNN. http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/life/lesbians-in-Japan-struggle-to-build-their-own-community-814836
Newswire (2015) Abe Lays Down Constitutional Barrier to Gay Marriage in Japan.